Writing a Successful Grant Proposal

Lisa Bodnar, University of Pittsburgh

Times are tough when it comes to securing external grants to fund your research. It’s never been more important to understand how to write a successful grant proposal. There is a seemingly endless list of books on the topic, but I don’t have time to read a book, do you? The five papers below elegantly summarize the key elements of writing a winning grant proposal. 

If you are only going to read one paper on this playlist, then make sure it’s “An Evidence-Based Guide to Writing Grant Proposals for Clinical Research” by Inouye and Fiellin (Ann Intern Med 2005;142:274-282).  This paper is cited in nearly every other paper published on grant writing. It is a gold mine of information for early-stage investigators, and provides helpful reminders for more advanced investigators whose work needs an extra lift (and whose doesn’t?). When I was writing my first NIH R01, I considered this a sacred document. One of the most useful parts of the paper is the authors’ explanation of ways to directly link the significance section with the proposed project. It also provides an appendix with data on the most common problems in NIH grant proposals so that you can avoid these common mistakes. You won’t regret reading this paper!

Another favorite of mine is “Why Academics Have a Hard Time Writing Good Grant Proposals” by Robert Porter.  If you have read winning grant proposals, you probably have already figured out that they look and read differently than a journal article. As Porter notes, “Sentences are shorter, with key phrases underlined or bolded to make them stand out. Lists are printed bullet style. Graphs, tables and drawings abound…The writing is more energetic, direct and concise. The subject matter is easy to understand, as there are fewer highly technical terms” (p. 37).  It takes a lot of practice (and a lot of editing!) to stop writing grants like an academic, and this paper will help you get there.

Robert Porter wrote another great article called  “Crafting a Sales Pitch for Your Grant Proposal” (Research Management Review 2011;18(2):1-7.  Porter states, “Seasoned grant reviewers will admit to making up their minds on the very first page of the proposal, and rarely change their posture as they read the rest of the document” (p. 1). This article teaches you how to write a strong first page to ‘sell’ your idea to the reviewers.

A couple of other good articles on successful grant writing are below. If you find other papers that you like, please email me with the citation (lbodnar@pitt.edu). I would love to add to my collection. Happy grant writing!

Chung CK, Shauver MJ. Fundamental principles of writing a successful grant proposal. J Hand Surg 2008;33A:566-572.

Wescott L, Laskofski M. Grant writing tips for translational research. Methods Mol Biol 2012;823:379-89.

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